This article is available at the URI as part of the NYU Library's Ancient World Digital Library in partnership with the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW). More information about ISAW Papers is available on the ISAW website.

Except where noted, ©2014 Federico De Romanis; distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License
Creative Commons License

This article can be downloaded as a single file

ISAW Papers 8 (2014)

Ivory from Muziris*

Federico De Romanis

Abstract: The extant portion of the verso side of the “Muziris papyrus” (PVindob G 40822 v = SB XVIII 13617 v) contains the monetary evaluation of three-quarters of an Indian cargo loaded on the ship Hermapollon. Among the commodities are 167 elephant tusks weighing 3,228.5 kgs and schidai weighing 538.5 kgs. It is argued that schidai are fragments of tusks trimmed away from captive elephants. A comparison with commercial ivory lots of the early sixteenth century shows the selected quality of the tusks loaded on the Hermapollon.

Subjects: India--Relations--Rome, Ivory industry, Economic history--to 500.


The texts on the Papyrus Vindobonensis G 40822,1 now widely known as the “Muziris papyrus,” will be remembered as among the most significant pieces of evidence related to Indo-Roman trade published in the twentieth century, and the more we understand them, the more important they become. The extant portion of the text on the verso contains the monetary evaluation of three-quarters of the South Indian cargo loaded on the ship Hermapollon (probably at Muziris, mentioned in the text on the recto), and two recent papers, one by Federico Morelli and the other by me, have proposed an almost complete reconstruction of the evaluated commodities. Both papers emphasized, albeit in very different measures, the predominant share of pepper and malabathron in the cargo, the two main exports from the Limyrike emporia.2 Both Morelli and I came to recognize that the 771 money talents and 4,632 drachmae recorded at col. i, ll. 25-263 are the value of (almost) three-quarters of the pepper cargo, but while Morelli suggests that that value resulted from a price of 24 drachmae per mina, I contend that a price of 6 drachmae per mina is the only price that can account for the position of other numerical values in the text. Moreover, both Morelli and I interpret the weight number at col. i, l. 18 as the weight of three-quarters of the malabathron cargo, but while he reads the first two digits as 1,200 and assumes a price of 20 drachmae per mina, I read them as 1,800 and deduce a price of 12 drachmae per mina. Finally, I assume that the Hermapollon’s cargo included another commodity, evaluated at col. i, ll. 14-16, which might have been tortoise shell. In this paper I would like to focus on two other commodities exported on the Hermapollon: the “sound” ivory tusks and the schidai. As the meaning of the Greek term schidai in the papyrus is disputed, it makes better sense to analyze the two commodities in reverse order of their appearance in the document. Therefore, we shall start with the schidai and later consider the “sound” ivory.

Schidai, ivory of lower value.

As we shall see, schidai represent less than 1% of the entire value of the Hermapollon’s cargo, and their weight was little more than half a ton. Yet a correct understanding of this entry will have a significant impact on the general interpretation of the text, and may shed some light both on the Cēra kingdom to which the ancient Muziris belonged and on the ivory trade on the ancient Indian Ocean.

In the papyrological documents, the Greek term σχίδαι (schidai) occurs only on the verso of the Muziris papyrus col. ii, ll. 16 and 25. In that portion of the text—col. ii, ll. 16-25—the value of three-quarters of the schidai brought back by the Hermapollon is calculated. The evaluation follows the complex pattern by which the three-quarters of “sound” ivory is assessed at col. ii, ll. 4-15. From the weight number representing the three-quarters (13 weight talents and 9.75 minae), a small parcel (22.75 minae), which is said to be “taken in addition by the arabarchs4 for the tetartologia,” is removed. The rest (12 weight talents and 47 minae) is converted twice, first into Roman pounds at the ratio of 1 Egyptian talent to 95 Roman pounds, and then back into Egyptian talents at the ratio of 97.5 Roman pounds : 1 Egyptian talent. The resulting weight number (12 weight talents and 27 minae), at the price of 70 drachmae per mina, leads to a value of 8 money talents and 4,290 drachmae. Then the 22.75 minae that had been “taken in addition by the arabarchs for the tetartologia” are multiplied for the same price of 70 drachmae per mina: the result is 1,592.5 drachmae. By adding the two subtotals, a value of 8 money talents and 5,882.5 drachmae is obtained.

Figure 1. From the entire quantity to the value of the three-quarters of the schidai.

As Rathbone first understood and Morelli now confirms, 13 weight talents and 9.75 minae are just three-quarters of the schidai exported on the Hermapollon. The entire quantity was the weight number recorded at col. i, l. 10, that is, 17 weight talents and 33 minae, from which one quarter (4 weight talents and 23.25 minae) was removed.

Since the talent referred to here is equivalent to 95 Roman pounds, the schidai weighed around 538.5 kgs. But what exactly is a schida? Drawing on Hesychius’ entry <σχίδα>· σχίδος σινδόνος, πῆγμα (schida: division of a garment, fabric),5 Harrauer and Sijpesteijn, the first editors of the papyrus, understood the term as referring to “a detached piece of a larger whole σινδών, a bale of cloth.”6 Although neither σχίδαι nor σινδόνες (cloths, garments) are mentioned in the Periplus Maris Erythraei as Limyrike commodities,7 Harrauer and Sijpesteijn pointed out that the Periplus Maris Erythraei does mention σινδόνες among the exports from the Ganges emporion,8 and that Gangetic nard, another typical Ganges commodity9 imported by the Hermapollon,10 also appears among the commodities available in the Limyrike emporia.11 The implicit suggestion was that both Gangetic nard and “excellent Gangetic garments” were exported from the Ganges emporion to Muziris and from there re-exported to Egypt.

Harrauer and Sijpesteijn considered the possibility that in P.Vindob. G 40822 verso col. ii, ll. 16; 25 σχιδῶν could be a misspelling for σχιζῶν,12 but they rejected the idea that it could have meant “Holzscheit.”13 They also rejected a connection with Hesychius’ lemma σχίδια· ὠμόλινα, on the grounds that “raw Flax” (ὠμόλινα), a typical Egyptian product, is unlikely to appear among the imports from India.14

The interpretations of Harrauer and Sijpesteijn, basically accepted or unquestioned by subsequent scholars,15 were challenged by Rathbone. Considering σχίδα as only a variant of σχίζα (piece of wood cut off, lath, splinter), Rathbone suggested that the schidai were fragments of elephant tusks and thus distinct from the “sound ivory” (ἐλέφας ὑγιής) mentioned at col. ii, l. 4 of the same text, which were entire tusks.16 Rathbone buttressed his interpretation observing 1) that the μέν at col. ii, l. 4 and a δέ to be read at col. ii, l. 1617 structured the phrase so as to contrast the sound ivory and the schidai;18 and 2) that the value of the unspecified ivory (ἐλέφας), lost with the lacuna at col. ii, l. 26, must have merged the value of the sound ivory with that of the schidai. To me, Rathbone’s argument seems decisive on this point: if schidai were not ivory, the μέν at col. ii, l. 4, would be a strange μέν solitarium; and if schidai were not ivory, then we could not explain—except as a clerical error—why the clerk records again the value of an unspecified ivory, after having already calculated the value of the schidai. Reasonable as it seemed at the time, the interpretation of the first editors does not accord as well with the context as does Rathbone’s reading.

Fragments or imperfect tusks?

That said, the sense of the contrast between sound ivory and schidai still remains to be properly understood. The difference of price between sound ivory (100 drachmae per mina) and schidai (70 drachmae per mina) makes it clear that schidai were ivory of secondary quality. However, was their quality secondary because they were “accidental fragments rather than sawn pieces” of ivory, as Rathbone assumed? The question is far from trifling, not least because it is pivotal for determining the nature of the arabarchs’ share.

According to Rathbone, the evaluation preserved in the papyrus concerns only three-quarters of the Hermapollon’s cargo because one-quarter of the commodities would have been removed to pay the quarter-tax in kind. Consistently, the rationale of the share “taken in addition by the arabarchs for the quarter-tax” is seen as a way to simplify the practical division of sound ivory and schidai, two commodities from which an exact weight was not easy to extract.19 In other words, since it was impossible for the arabarchs to take exactly 25% of the ivory weights without sawing the tusks or the fragments (and thereby damaging the commodity), they took a little more than 25%: 11.75 minae (around 6 kgs), in the case of sound ivory; as much as 22.75 minae (around 11.6 kgs), in the case of the schidai.

The contradiction inherent in Rathbone’s argument was understood by Morelli, who follows Rathbone in assuming that the quarter-tax was paid in kind and that the function of the shares taken in addition by the arabarchs was to ease the payment in kind of the quarter-tax of commodities such as ivory tusks and schidai.20 Precisely for that reason, however, Morelli is reluctant to accept Rathbone’s conclusion that schidai were accidental fragments of tusks. His implicit reasoning is clear: if the 22.75 minae (= 11.6 kgs) taken in addition by the arabarchs are only a fraction of the weight of the smallest schida of the lot, the Greek term cannot refer to tusk fragments, but must refer rather to entire tusks that were imperfect in some way—spoiled or cracked or only slightly broken. In other words, the schidai were in fact whole tusks, but not sound.21

There is very little doubt that the entry of sound ivory (ἐλέφας ὑγιής) refers to entire tusks: at col. ii, ll. 12 and 13 the same commodity is mentioned as ὀδόντες, “teeth,” and at col. i, l. 5 the figure 167 must be precisely the number of the tusks, as Morelli recognized.22 It is equally unquestionable that the adjective “sound” (ὑγιής) implies an assessment of the quality of the tusks, determining which tusk is sound and which is not.23 Nonetheless, the assumption that just two terms, sound ivory and schidai, could cover the entire spectrum of possible ivory classifications is unwarranted, and the fact that in this document sound ivory and schidai are opposed to each other does not guarantee that any tusk deemed not sound is by default a schida, or that a schida, as such, cannot be sound. In my view, the undeniable connection of σχίδα with the verb σχίζω (split, divide, cut out, tear) and the parallelism with σχίζα and σχίδαξ (piece of wood cut off) strongly favor Rathbone’s translation as “fragments.”24 The fact that the arabarchs “took in addition” as much as 22.75 minae should not bias our understanding of the Greek term. Nor should we assume that those fragments were necessarily unsound or accidental. Indeed, many of them were made on purpose and taken from perfectly sound tusks.

The schidai of the Muziris papyrus can hardly be identified with what elsewhere is called περιπρίσματα or παραπρίσματα,25 namely, waste from the ivory carvers’ shops: the difference between the price of the tusks (100 drachmae per mina) and that of the schidai (70 drachmae per mina) is too small to address the gap in value between entire tusks and small scraps.26

In order to justify his translation of the term schidai, Rathbone recalled a passage by Pliny the Elder, in which the elephants are said to deliberately break their tusks in order to escape from hunters: ‘They themselves [sc. the elephants] know that the only thing in them that makes desirable plunder is in their weapons […] and when surrounded by a party of hunters they post those with the smallest tusks in front, so that it may be thought not worth while to fight them, and afterwards when exhausted they break their tusks by dashing them against a tree, and ransom themselves at the price of the desired booty’ (transl. by H. Rackham).27

This passage requires two clarifications. The first is that it is part of a section comprising several other mirabilia testifying to the quasi-human affective and cognitive capacities of the elephant28—a rather popular topic in Western classical literature.29 The second is that it attributes to elephants a tactic comparable to that ascribed to beavers, when they are chased down by hunters. Just like elephants, beavers ‘ransom themselves with that part of their body on account of which they are chiefly sought for.’30 Whatever the truth behind it, we do not need to rely on this tale to explain the ivory fragments exported from Muziris. As a matter of fact, another more prosaic explanation is at hand. I propose, in fact, to identify the schidai as those fragments that are regularly trimmed from the tusks of captive elephants.

Tusk trimming is a standard practice in Kerala today,31 but it was also common in ancient India, as is shown in some Sanskrit classical texts. Regular trimming of elephant tusks is mentioned in the Arthaśāstra, in the lines that end the section dedicated to the duties of the hastyadhyakṣa, the “superintendent of the elephants”:

danta-mūla-parīṇāha-dvi-guṇaṃ projjhya kalpayet /abde dvy-ardhe nadī-jānāṃ pañca-abde parvata-okasām//
Leaving the double length of the circumference of the tusk at the root, he should cut [sc. the rest], every two years and a half in the case of those [sc. elephants] from river-banks, every five years in the case of those from mountainous regions.32

Approximately the same rules are mentioned in Varāhamihira’s Bṛhat Saṃhitā:

dantasya mūlaparidhiṃ dvirāyataṃ prohya kalpayeccheṣam/ adhikamanūpacarāṇāṃ nyūnaṃ giricāriṇāṃ kiñcit//
Having left the double length of the circumference of the tooth at its root, cut the rest; more (often) in those elephants that live in the humid places, a little less often in those that live in the mountain.33

If we turn to Greek authors, the sawing of Indian elephant tusks is also referenced, although only as a practice limited to the few war elephants with unusually big tusks, by Cosmas Indicopleustes:

ὀδόντας δὲ μεγάλους οἱ ἰνδικοὶ οὐκ ἔχουσιν, ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐὰν σχῶσι, πρίζουσιν αὐτοὺς διὰ τὸ βάρος, ἵνα μὴ βαρῇ αὐτοὺς ἐν τῷ πολέμῳ.
The Indian elephants are not provided with large tusks, but should they have such, they saw them off, that their weight may not encumber them in war.34

The practice of leaving ‘the double length of the circumference of the tooth at its roots’ addresses the need to avoid cutting into the living pulp of the tusk.35 The fact that elephants living in the mountains may get their tusks trimmed less often than those living by the riverbanks has been taken as a proof of a slower growth rate of tusks of the mountain elephants.36